New and Noted: “Digital Humanities: A Resource List.”

McDayter, Mark, comp.  The Digital Humanities: A Resource List.  Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory, Western University. 3 May, 2012. Web.<http://ett.arts.uwo.ca/site/dhResources.html>

The Digital Humanities is a huge and sprawling field.  It encompasses within its “big tent” a diverse range of disciplines, subdisciplines, theories, and practices, ranging from text encoding to text mining and employing technology for pedagogy.

It has also spawned an enormous variety of tools, manuals, guides, theoretical discussions, discussion groups, organizations, and open access journals.

A little more than a month ago, I published, on the web site for the Research Group for Electronic Textuality and Theory in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, a resource list of online materials to assist those finding their way through the maze of approaches and tools in the Digital Humanities.  “Digital Humanities:  A Resource List” was also compiled for my own sake, in an attempt to get some kind of handle on what was available.  Here is part of my “Introduction” to the resource:

This web site has been designed to provide a quick and simple reference source for information about, and resources for, the theory and practice of Digital Humanities. While it has been assembled for the particular use of scholars and students working in the Digital Humanities at Western University, it is open to anyone, and (it is hoped) will prove a particularly useful resource for those new to the field.

This resource list is avowedly neither comprehensive nor complete. The focus is upon free and open access tools and sources of information that can be of immediate assistance to those who wish to begin to engage with technology directly. Doubtless I have overlooked a great deal that is of value, and I will be updating these pages periodically with new materials as I become aware of them; a list of recent additions is to be found immediately below. All of the resources listed here are, for the moment, available online (although some exist in print as well); future iterations of this list may additionally include conventional print sources, as well as exemplary projects in the Digital Humanities. Additional areas that I will be adding in the future include digital archives, linguistics, and virtual worlds.

It has occurred to me that I have, rather oddly, neglected to make note of this resource here.  I am now making good that omission.

The site continues to expand on a nearly daily basis: I have added 52 entries since it was first published, and it now includes 171 entries in total (although a handful of these are repeated in multiple sections of the site).  They are distributed according to the following categories:

  • Introduction
  • Digital Humanities – General -19 entries
  • DH & Literary Studies – 31 entries
  • DH & History – 10 entries
  • Pedagogy & Technology – 31 entries
  • Digital Tools – 41 entries
  • Text Encoding Initiative – 19 entries
  • Content Management Systems – 4 entries
  • Learning Management Systems – 4 entries
  • Discussion Groups – 3 entries
  • Organizations – 9 entries

All entries include links to the resource in question, as well as a pop-up panel providing a more-or-less detailed description of the resource, most often lifted from the web pages of the resource itself.

I hope this proves useful to others.  It has already proven a useful exercise for myself.

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New and Noted: “Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities” (Ashgate)

Marilyn Deegan and Willard McCarty, eds. Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities, Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

This is a new collection of essays on a subject that is, really, central to the way Digital Humanities has evolved, and perhaps a necessary adjunct of its methodologies:  collaborative work and research.  The volume is edited by two stalwarts in the field, Willard McCarty and Marilyn Deegan, and contains essays by a great many familiar names.  It prompts two reflections on my part.

  1. I wish I were better at working collaboratively than I am.  (My reluctance stems less from a personal or professional dislike of collaboration than it does from laziness.)
  2. I wish scholarly books weren’t so hideously expensive.

This looks like a future “must read,” however. I am personally particularly looking forward to reading the pieces by Roueché, by Kathryn Sutherland and Elena Pierazzo, and by the HCI-Book Consultative Group and the INKE Research Team.

Here is the description as given on Ashgate’s page for the new volume:

Collaboration within digital humanities is both a pertinent and a pressing topic as the traditional mode of the humanist, working alone in his or her study, is supplemented by explicitly co-operative, interdependent and collaborative research. This is particularly true where computational methods are employed in large-scale digital humanities projects. This book, which celebrates the contributions of Harold Short to this field, presents fourteen essays by leading authors in the digital humanities. It addresses several issues of collaboration, from the multiple perspectives of institutions, projects and individual researchers.

And here is a breakdown of its contents:

  • Marilyn Deegan and Willard McCarty, “Foreword”
  • Willard McCarty, “Collaborative research in the digital humanities”
  • John Bradley, “No job for techies: technical contributions to research in the digital humanities”
  • Hugh Craig and John Burrows, “A collaboration about a collaboration: the authorship of King Henry VI, Part 3”
  • Julia Flanders, “Collaboration and dissent: challenges of collaborative standards for digital humanities”
  • Susan Hockey, “Digital humanities in the age of the internet: reaching out to other communities”
  • Laszlo Hunyadi, “Collaboration in virtual space in digital humanities”
  • Jan-Christoph Meister, “Crowd sourcing ‘true meaning’: a collaborative markup approach to textual interpretation”
  • Janet L. Nelson, “From building site to building: the prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) project”
  • Geoffrey Rockwell, “Crowdsourcing the humanities: social research and collaboration”
  • Charlotte Roueché, “Why do we mark up texts?”
  • Ray Siemens, Teresa Dobson, Stan Ruecker, Richard Cunningham, Alan Galey, Claire Warwick, and Lynne Siemens, with Michael Best, Melanie Chernyk, Wendy Duff, Julia Flanders, David Gants, Bertrand Gervais, Karon MacLean, Steve Ramsay, Geoffrey Rockwell, Susan Schreibman, Colin Swindells, Christian Vandendorpe, Lynn Copeland, John Willinsky, Vika Zafrin, the HCI-Book Consultative Group and the INKE Research Team, “Human-computer interface/interaction and the book: a consultation-derived perspective on foundational e-book research”
  • Kathryn Sutherland and Elena Pierazzo, “The author’s hand: from page to screen”
  • Melissa Terras, “Being the other: interdisciplinary work in computational science and the humanities”
  • John Unsworth and Charlotte Tupman, “Interview with John Unsworth, April 2011”

Morris Zapp and the Playful Fish

Stanley Fish is an important critic.

Let’s begin with that essential statement of fact, because it is a truism that seems to have escaped some of those who have responded, on Twitter and elsewhere, to his recent critique of the digital humanities with a (facetious, one hopes) assertion of Fish’s irrelevance.  While it is true that we are no longer so “surprised” by his critical insights as we once were, that is surely because, like all worthwhile criticism, they have been quietly absorbed into our understanding of what texts are, and how they work; what was once shocking now seems commonplace precisely because he made it so.  To suggest that he has nothing new to say is  a bit like accusing Shakespeare, Pope, or Tennyson of writing clichés.  He is no more “irrelevant” than, say, Matthew Arnold, or Cleanth Brooks.  He is one of the reasons why we are where we are.

For that reason, if for no other, we need to take seriously what Fish has to say about the digital humanities in three columns written for the New York Times, most recently in a post entitled “Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.

We need, as I say, to take Fish seriously. But not, I want to suggest, too seriously.  Fish’s winking allusion in his second column to the absolutism of Morris Zapp, David Lodge’s caricature of him in the novels Changing Places and Small World, is one means of asserting his own theoretical position.  Fish readily confesses that he, like Zapp, seeks after “pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power” by covering a topic “with such force and completeness that no other critic will be able to say a word about it.” This assertion is probably accurate enough, but it is also sufficiently arch and “meta” to leave us wondering how seriously we are meant to take it:  the very circularity and ludic quality of the allusion should alert us to the fact that Fish is being at least somewhat playful here. At the same time, while it is not too difficult to credit Fish with the overweening hubris that he seems here, and elsewhere in the columns, to exhibit, we would do well to remember that we are dealing with the critic who changed our understanding of Milton’s über-rhetorician, Satan – and should accordingly respond with a requisite degree of caution.

Fish asks questions, and provides some answers.  The questions are – and always have been – worthwhile.  What are the real contributions that digital humanities has to make to our understanding of literature?  What are the full implications of our methodologies, and of the way in which we think of texts?  And what does it mean, what are the responsibilities that accompany, being the “next big thing” in the humanities (if this is indeed so)?

His answers, on the other hand, are enormously reductive.  It is rather amusing to watch someone critical of the digital enterprise resort to binaries, but this is very much what Fish does.  The notion of a “text in process,” a term he gets from Kathleen Fitzpatrick, comes for Fish to signify that there is no text at all for digital humanists, as though we were all Heraclitus, unable ever to dip a toe into the same text twice.  Text mining becomes (if you’ll forgive the pun) a sort of critical fishing expedition, as though digital humanists never formulate hypotheses.  A focus upon “big data” becomes a negligent attitude towards detail, as though text miners never refined their data to a more granular level.  The ludic quality of such a methodology becomes a “lack of seriousness,” while the acknowledgement of the multivalence of meaning becomes, in Fish’s analysis, an acceptance of all meanings as equally “right,” with the result that the distinction between “truth” and “falsehood” is entirely elided.

And so on.  Fish’s “answers” to the legitimate questions he asks are less a critique of the digital humanities than they are a caricature of its premises and methodologies.  This is not criticism or theory:  it is satire and parody – as is again hinted at by Fish’s playful evocation of the phantom critic Morris Zapp, who is at one and the same time both a fabrication, a parody, and a real life critic. How should one respond to an assault launched by fictional comic character?

Digital humanities needs to answer Fish’s questions, but not by means of responding to his answers, for to do so would put us in the ridiculous situation of Thomas Shadwell responding to the satirical use of “Mac” in the title of Dryden’s Macflecknoe by plaintively asserting that he’d never so much as set foot in Ireland.

We don’t need to respond to Fish’s criticisms seriously – although some clarification of his characterizations might be worthwhile, if only as a public relations exercise – because Fish isn’t really concerned about critiquing the digital humanities in the first place.  These three columns (or “blog” posts, as he smirkingly labels them) aren’t about criticism, theory, the future of literary studies, immortality, religiosity, or indeed any of the issues, themes, and metaphors that Fish evokes:  they are about Stanley Fish.  Everything we need to know about Fish’s real point, and his intention, is revealed in his final paragraph:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for.

If we consider Fish’s remarks in the terms of the criteria he himself sets out here, we will discover, I think, that he’s been playing with us, for Fish’s own remarks are transgressions of this mini-manifesto: they generalize where they should engage, they produce a great deal of noise and not much substance, and they are, ultimately, ludic and self-referential.

The real question for digital humanists should be whether this is a “game” that we want to play.

Much Ado about Nothing? The British Library’s “First Folio” App for iPad

The British Library, William Shakespeare’s ‘The First Folio’ for iPad.

 http://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/the-first-folio/id487218856?mt=11

It’s pretty rare that I feel “leading edge”; in general, I tend to bob along after trends like a rubber dingy tethered to an ocean liner.  This Christmas was no exception:  like, it would seem, a great many others, I received an iPad2 from Santa. (Well, strictly speaking I bought it for myself, and then placed it under the tree: the old guy is too busy to keep up with all of the tech toys, and I wanted to be sure that what I received was actually what I wanted and needed.)

I have always been resistant to the allure of Apple, although I have long owned an iPod:  while I will readily concede the excellence of Apple products, their corporate philosophy and insistence upon a closed-source control over very nearly every aspect of everything they produce has always seemed to me a bit . . . well, fascist.  However, the point of getting an iPad in the first place was to get a sense of the way in which digital texts were being translated for tablet computers, and, for better or worse, most of these are being produced for the iPad (although more and more appear to be available for Android as well).

When I first began to explore digital textuality some 8 or 9 years ago, the “place” where electronic texts “happened” was, of course, on the desktop or laptop computer.  Increasingly however, and particularly with the advent of relatively cheap eReaders such the Kobo and Kindle providing access to tens of thousands of inexpensive (and sometimes even free) digital texts, digital textuality is moving on to the tablet or eReader. My interest in the books available on simple readers such as the Kindle is fairly limited right now, although I’m sure that this will change.  These are relatively unsophisticated devices after all, and their potential is limited by the simplicity of their platforms. Also, they are not nearly as pretty or fun as tablets, and you can’t play Angry Birds on them.

Title Page for First Folio

The title page of the first folio of Shakespeare's plays.

The potential offered by the graphics and scripting capabilities of the true tablet computer such as the iPad, on the other hand, means however that texts made available for these platforms can provide full and deeply engaging multimedia experiences.  And so, almost the first two apps I downloaded on to my shiny new iPad – just after “Angry Birds,” of course – were a Shakespeare app from the British Library, and another devoted to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.  Early Modern book geek that I am, I was particularly excited by the Shakespeare app, which promises “an exact facsimile reproduction of the large and handsome book known simply as the ‘First Folio,’” and notes that consulting early printed versions of these plays “is an essential part of a more complete understanding of Shakespeare’s work.”  Well, yeah.  Duh.

Ok, fair enough. Unfortunately, however, the British Library’s “Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’” on iBooks turns out to be something of a disappointment.  The application does indeed provide no fewer than 905 photo facsimiles of one of the BL’s copies of the First Folio: these are very nicely rendered in full colour, and can be displayed to show one page opening, or a single page per screen. A zoom feature also permits a somewhat closer view of the text, although the image deteriorates in quality fairly rapidly if one attempts to zoom in too closely.

Sadly, however, this is pretty much all the BL app offers.  The briefest one page introduction to the history of the First Folio (given without any citations or references), and an even shorter list of the credits for the short audio excerpts included in the app represent almost the only addition to the facsimile images.

A screen capture from the BL's "Shakespeare's 'First Folio'"

Now, if one enjoys, as I do, reading early modern texts in their original printed format, the app clearly has something to offer.  For the general reader or the scholar, however, this digital edition comes up decidedly short.  There is no metadata and no scholarly apparatus of any sort; the BL doesn’t even tell us which copy of the First Folio it has reproduced.  We are told nothing about the provenance, location, identity, or material conditions – not even the page dimensions – of the book we are viewing. And, while it clearly would be expecting too much for this edition to include commentary, annotations, or extensive textual notes, a simple introduction to each of the plays should surely have been possible.  This is not unexplored terrain: a few things have been written about this guy’s plays, and one would have thought that it would not have been terribly difficult or expensive to add a few words about them.

The pages can be accessed by flipping through the book one page at a time (using the somewhat annoying “page flipping” animation that has now become almost standard for this kind of eText), and there is a table of contents that provides either a list of the plays and pages, or nearly useless page thumbnails from which to choose. A search feature (which is I think standard with iBooks) will search the two “introductory” pages at the beginning – all two or three hundred words of them – but can’t access the play texts themselves, and otherwise includes only buttons to “Search Web” and (*gag*) “Search Wikipedia.”  Other than these features, the only additional “shiny” offered us is about a dozen short audio clips from the plays, performed with Early Modern pronunciation. Cool, but not really sufficiently interesting or informative to add a great deal of value to the edition.

I’m a little mystified as to what the British Library thinks it is offering here.  The page images are very pretty, and reasonably clear, but they aren’t really detailed enough, at a screen resolution of only 768px X 1024px, to be of much use to the scholar, and the lack of even a minimal textual apparatus and metadata more or less rules out any scholarly utility anyway. As for the general reader, the complete lack of annotation, explanation, context, or indeed virtually any information about what is appearing on the screen must surely render this resource a much less useful and interesting gateway to Shakespeare’s plays than might otherwise have been the case.  How many people really want to read Timon of Athens straight through in a facsimile of an original printing, without the aid of any context, commentary, or even cheap thrills?  A few might, I suppose, but I don’t know of any, nor do I number myself among them.

Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to complain about this app. Although it is relatively expensive compared to all other book apps that I’ve seen, it is still pretty cheap, coming in at about $26.00 (Canadian).  I’d happily pay that for a print photo facsimile edition, with or without apparatus.  But it is a little off-putting that the BL seems to have put such little effort into the creation of this app.  The page images they must surely have already had, and as interesting as the brief audio clips are, they don’t really add a great deal to the package. Would it have been too much to ask for a little more in the way of information from them about the book that they are so reverently offering up to the public?  One frankly expects more from the BL than what seems to be, at first glance, a hastily-assembled and poorly contextualized collection of page images.

So, for the price, this was, I suppose a worthwhile investment.  But only just.  I’m not unhappy to have it, and I’m sure I’ll be able to make some use of it in the future, but if this represents the “future” of scholarly book apps (and fortunately I don’t think it does), then I am unimpressed.  In the meantime, however, I am well equipped for the next time I feel a hankering to read Timon with long “s”s and wormholing.

(Note: This is a slightly modified version of a post originally written for Facebook. I have changed relatively little but the style, having received a criticism from a friend — well, she calls herself my friend — that my original was “pompous.”

Harrumph.)